Whitney Houston’s voice soars at hometown funeral

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - After all the testimonials from relatives and friends, the songs from legends and pop stars, the preaching and even laughter, the raw emotion of Whitney Houston’s funeral came down to just one moment: The sound of her own voice.

As the strains of her biggest record, “I Will Always Love You,” filled the New Hope Baptist Church at the end of the nearly four-hour service Saturday and her silver-and-gold casket was lifted in the air, the weight of the moment was too much for mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, to bear.

As she was held up by two women, she wailed, “My baby! My baby!” as she was led out the church behind her daughter’s body.

A few steps behind her was the pop icon’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, also crying uncontrollably as she was comforted by Houston’s close friend, singer Ray J.

It was the most searing scene on a day with mixed moods as family, friends and a list celebrities _ sometimes one in the same _ came to the humble New Hope Baptist Church where she first wowed a congregation to remember one of music’s legends, but also a New Jersey hometown girl.

Houston died last Saturday in Beverly Hills, Calif., on the eve of the Grammys at the age of 48. Her death marked the end of a life that was marked by stunning achievements: Blessed with a voice of great power and beauty, Houston became one of pop music’s most successful artists over a career that spanned nearly three decades and segued into film with hits like “The Bodyguard.”

But her struggles with drugs and very public fall from grace during tumultuous times, including a union with ex-husband Bobby Brown, were among the many valleys in her life.

Both sides of Houston were recalled at the service at New Hope, which was filled with about 300 mourners, including Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Diane Sawyer and Houston’s cousin, Dionne Warwick.

“She was someone with a charmed and a beautiful life, sometimes misunderstood, even by herself,” said her sister-in-law and manager, Patricia Houston. “But a life nevertheless that gave joy, happiness, enthusiasm, peace and beautiful music to millions of people around the world.”

Kevin Costner, her co-star in “The Bodyguard,” said for all of Houston’s beauty and success, she was still yearning for approval from the public _ and still somewhat insecure, a superstar who “still wondered, `Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Will they like me?’”

“It’s a tree we could all hang from _ the unexplainable burden that comes with fame,” he said. “Call it doubt. call it fear. I’ve had mine. And I know the famous in the room have had theirs.”

Many who spoke talked about Houston’s unshakable faith in Jesus Christ, which got her through some of her most difficult times. Perry recalled a conversation where Houston would look sad when reflecting on her troubles, but then would hasten to add that God was taking care of her.

“The other thing I know for sure _ and this is more important than anything that she’s done in her life _ Whitney Houston loved the Lord,” he said.

Fittingly, music played a major role in the send-off to one of music’s greatest voices.

Stevie Wonder rewrote lyrics to “Ribbon in the Sky” for Houston _ “you will always be a ribbon in the sky,” he sang.

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